This paper evaluates to what extent the relationship between history and truth, as established in Vitruvius’ De architectura (V. and DA), can adumbrate the role of truth-value in more conventional forms of historiography. In fact, DA offers a surprisingly ideal lens through which to approach this question. Not only do V.’s monuments and text alike claim the same, memorializing function as do many historiographical texts (memorias posteris tradere [et sim.]; cf. Chaplin, Lowrie), but V. concerns himself explicitly with the role of both historia and truth-value as key components in authoritative architecture. (Vitr. 1.Pref.3; 1.1.5; cf. Liv. 29.14.9, etc.) Analysis of one of DA’s most controversial passages, the chronologically problematic “history” of the Caryatids, demonstrates that exemplary value and persuasion, not accuracy, are the goals of an architect who wants to “make history” (in both senses of that phrase) with architecture. Equally remarkable is that V.’s Caryatids, qua ornamenta, blatantly violate his infamous injunctions against decorative surrealism (4.2.5-6; 7.5.6-7), thus exposing the seemingly inflexible aesthetic criterion of veritatis ratio (a phrase we might well translate as “truth-value”) as disposable when important exempla—such as that provided by the Caryatids—are at stake.
As an example of the historiae that an architect should know in support of his memorializing craft, V. recounts the sack of Carya, a Peloponnesian city that sided with the Persians and was later justly punished for its Medizing by “the Greeks.” (1.1.5) This story, found only in V., seems to provide an aetiology for ornamental Caryatids, and has long interested historians of both Greece and art, who alike have sought both to discredit and redeem V.’s account (Plommer; Vickers; King; Lesk; etc.). Even the most generous treatments accuse V. of confusion, stumbling, and mistakes of historical accuracy, (King; Milnor) but the error lies in disregarding V.’s admission that the Caryan tale, albeit based in historia, is in fact an argumentum, defined by rhetorical handbooks as “something made-up, but that still could have happened” (ficta res, quae tamen fieri potuit, Inv. 1.27; Her. 1.13), and which contrasts with fully fictive fabulae (in [quibus] nec verae nec veri similes res continentur). That V.’s technical lexicon is largely borrowed from rhetorical theory is well known (Callebat; cf. Vitr. 9.Pref.17 on Cic.), but the presence of the term argumentum in an account meant to demonstrate the architect’s knowledge of historia supports recent suggestions about the distinctively textual nature of V.’s monuments and their ornamenta. Lowrie, e.g., asserts that such monuments “acquire their memorializing function by being read.” Taken further, the chief role of the ideal architectus is to ensure that monuments and their exempla are read correctly. (Oksanish) The Caryan episode thus offers a fictive narration of the kind that can be used not only to control the reception of exempla on physical monuments, but also to control the reception of textual monuments, whether DA (on which the Caryatids are authoritatively inscribed), or historiography proper.
And yet, as matronae who must physically support a Doric entablature, V.’s Caryatids violate his insistence on res verae and veritatis ratio as an artistic principle. Indeed, in his infamous diatribe against illusionistic architecture, V. specifically bans falsehoods (falsa) such as “roofs supported by reeds,” and condemns those who “do not care if any of these things can actually exist or not” (nec animadvertunt si quid eorum fieri potest necne, 7.5.4; cf. Inv. loc. cit.). Because neither a reed nor a human can actually support a marble tectum, V. compels us to ask why the Caryatids earn an exception. This paper concludes by positing that, as categories, even “natural” and “rational” truth are useful to the architectus (and perhaps the ancient historian) only insofar as they contribute to other, programmatic criteria, whether moral or—as is likely in V.’s case—political.